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The Best Gift Is Presence

Posted By Sabrina Walasek, Friday, December 21, 2018

The unfolding of a conversation is like unwrapping a present.

As someone who works remotely, I have come to value face-to-face conversation. 
The unfolding of a conversation is like unwrapping a present. It sets a vibe and pace to the ritual. While some people have a knack for being really present when conversing, many of us have to work at it. So let’s uncover what it takes to create a real gift of gab.

First, it’s best to share a real space together so you pick up on the full energy of the other person. The nonverbal connection between people has real power. It can cause people to subconsciously adjust their positions, movements, and breathing. When face-to-face, the brain's ‘mirror neurons’ mimic subtleties of the other person. 

While physically showing up is important, the real gift lies in our intention. It not only impacts what is communicated; it also establishes the balance of power. Let’s illustrate with a gift analogy. 

Scenario #1: Envision someone attacking a carefully wrapped giftbox with reckless abandon, snapping off ribbons and shredding paper in pursuit of its contents. No eye contact, no pause to relish the moment. In this scenario, the intent is to self-serve and own the experience.

Scenario #2: Now imagine someone admiring a giftbox, gingerly slipping off the ribbon, massaging the tape loose to preserve the paper. A pause allows for eye contact and a deep breath. Tissue paper is peeled back for the reveal. In this case, the intent is to build rapport and share the experience.

Intent exists in every conversation and it’s often buried deep in our subconscious. It lives in our words, pace, volume, tone, and body language. When we are present, we start to recognize and adjust intent before talking. 

A small-talker is congenial. A great storyteller is compelling. A conversation horder is neither and is likely too wrapped up in his- or herself to notice. We all need to share at length from time to time. However, when taking center stage is habitual, listeners are likely tortured or tuned out. 

Entering conversation to connect is not only about how much talking time you own, but the nature of your speech as well. In the dharma world, there are four common questions suggested to test potential words:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it the right time?

Passing thoughts through these gates before the words leap off your tongue requires slowing down. This gives time to course-correct. 

Of course, the gift of conversation isn’t just about what you say—it’s also about truly being present for the words, emotions, and subtle communications of your conversational partner.

We all want to be heard, really heard. “Listeners” who are distracted (listening but not engaged) or who reroute the conversation back to themselves are not listening. Active listeners approach a conversation (and a person) with curiosity and the goal of deeper understanding.

According to the Korn Ferry Institute’s The Science of Listening:

“Our listening brain is wired to do exactly what active listening discourages: evaluate input, predict outcomes, make judgments and perform triage, all on a moment-to-moment basis. That mode of functioning, according to recent thinking in cognitive neuroscience, evolved as the brain’s strategy to use its finite neural capacity efficiently. As we take in the stimuli of the speaker’s words, the prefrontal cortex, which enables organizing and prioritizing, lights up with activity as we continually vet the incoming information against what we know, our past experiences and our theoretical construct of the future.”

According to our brain, being fully present all the time would waste enormous time and energy. That’s what makes active listening such a gift! It takes dedication and signals to the other person, “You’re worth it!” 


How to Test Your Active Listening Skills

  • Notice your urge to speak and see if you can “bite your tongue” until a natural pause is created by the other person.
  • Fully engage with your eyes and body.
  • Put down your phone or items that may lure you away.
  • Try not to connect what the person is saying with your own experiences.
  • Try not to anticipate what you are going to say next. 
  • Incorporate parts of what the person said in a response back.
  • Ask questions to go deeper without the intent to judge or compete.
  • Approach with curiosity; find out something new.

As you gather for the holidays, it’s likely you will be catching up with folks you don’t see on a regular basis. Now is the perfect time to practice spreading words of kindness and making connections that go a little deeper. Set an intention as a speaker and a listener, to share the space and enhance the quality of your conversations, a gift to yourself and the world.

Sabrina WalesekSabrina Walasek is a long-time educator and lover of exploration and learning. She has traveled to more than 50 countries, embracing humanity and nurturing her sense of curiosity. She facilitates a monthly mindful women's circle and is a contributor to Whole Life Challenge's blog. Her website is www.mindfulspaces.org

Tags:  Active Listening  Conversation  Mindfulness  Presence 

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